5. They know not, neither do they understand: they walk in darkness, although all the foundations of the earth are moved. 6. I have said, Ye are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High. 7. But ye shall die as a man; and ye shall fall, O princes: as one of the people. 8. Arise, O God! Judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.
5. They know not, neither do they understand.1 After having reminded princes of their duty, the Psalmist complains that his admonition from their infatuation is ineffectual, and that they refuse to receive wholesome instruction; yea, that although the whole world is shaken to its foundations, they, notwithstanding, continue thoughtless and secure in the neglect of their duty. He chiefly reprobates and condemns their madness as manifested in this, that although they see heaven and earth involved in confusion, they are no more affected at the sight than if the care of the interests of mankind did not belong to them, of which they are, notwithstanding, in an especial manner the chosen and appointed conservators. I have stated a little before, that what chiefly deprives them of understanding is, that, being dazzled with their own splendor, and perversely shaking off every yoke, no religious considerations have the effect of inclining them to moderation. All sound knowledge and wisdom must commence with yielding to God the honor which is his due, and submitting to be restrained and governed by his word. The last clause of the verse, Although all the foundations of the earth are moved,2 is almost universally understood by interpreters in a different sense from that in which I have rendered it. They explain it as implying, that of all the calamities in the world the greatest is when princes neglect to execute the duties of their office; for it is the observance and prevalence of justice which constitutes the foundation on which the fabric of human society rests. Thus the sense, according to them, is, that the world is undermined and overthrown by the unjust tyranny of princes. I am far from rejecting this interpretation; but, as I have already hinted, I am more inclined to think, that we have here condemned the monstrous stupidity of judges, who can remain indifferent and unmoved in beholding the horrible confusion of civil society, yea even the very earth shaken to its foundations.
6. I have said, ye are gods. God has invested judges with a sacred character and title. This the prophet concedes; but he, at the same time, shows that this will afford no support and protection to wicked judges. He does not introduce them as speaking of the dignity of their office; but anticipating the style of reasoning which they would be disposed to adopt, he replies, "If you appeal to your dignity as an argument to shield you, this boasting will avail you nothing; yea, rather you are deceiving yourselves by your foolish confidence; for God, in appointing you his substitutes, has not divested himself of his own sovereignty as supreme ruler. Again, he would have you to remember your own frailty as a means of stirring you up to execute with fear and trembling the office intrusted to you." This verse may also be viewed as addressed by God himself to rulers, and as intimating, that, in addition to his clothing them with authority, he has bestowed upon them his name. This interpretation seems to agree with the language of Christ in John 10:34, where he speaks of those as called gods to whom the word of God came. The passage, however, may be appropriately resolved thus: I grant that ye are gods, and the sons of the Most High.3 But this does not materially alter the meaning. The object is simply to teach that the dignity with which judges are invested can form no excuse or plea why they should escape the punishment which their wickedness deserves. The government of the world has been committed to them upon the distinct understanding that they themselves also must one day appear at the judgment-seat of heaven to render up an account. The dignity, therefore, with which they are clothed is only temporary, and will pass away with the fashion of the world. Accordingly, it is added in the 7th verse, But ye shall die as men. You are armed with power, as if he had said, to govern the world; but you have not on that account ceased to be men, so as to be no longer subject to mortality. The last clause of the verse is translated by some expositors, Ye shall fall like one of the princes;4 but in my opinion improperly. They think that it contains a threatening of the violent death which would befall these unrighteous judges, corresponding to the sentiment of these lines of a heathen poet: --
"Ad generum Cereris sine caede et sanguine pauci,
Descendunt reges, et sicca morte tyranni."
"Few kings and tyrants go down to Pluto, the son-in-law of Ceres, without being put to a violent death, before they have completed the ordinary term allotted to the life of mortal man."5 That translation being forced, and not such as the words naturally suggest, I have no doubt that princes are here compared to the obscure and common class of mankind. The word one signifies any of the common people. Forgetting themselves to be men, the great ones of the earth may flatter themselves with visionary hopes of immortality; but they are here taught that they will be compelled to encounter death as well as other men. Christ, with the view of rebutting the calumny with which the Pharisees loaded him, quoted this text, John 10:34, 35, "Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the Scripture cannot be broken; say ye of him whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?" By these words Christ did not mean to place himself among the order of judges; but he argues from the less to the greater, that if the name of God is applied to God's officers, it with much more propriety belongs to his only begotten Son, who is the express image of the Father, in whom the Father's majesty shines forth, and in whom the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells.
8. Arise, O God! judge the earth. The reason why this psalm concludes with a prayer has been already stated at the commencement. The prophet, finding that his admonitions and remonstrances were ineffectual, and that princes, inflated with pride, treated with contempt all instruction on the principles of equity, addresses himself to God, and calls upon Him to repress their insolence. By this means, the Holy Spirit furnishes us with ground of comfort whenever we are cruelly treated by tyrants. We may perceive no power on earth to restrain their excesses; but it becomes us to lift up our eyes to heaven, and to seek redress from Him whose office it is to judge the world, and who does not claim this office to himself in vain. It is therefore our bounden duty to beseech him to restore to order what is embroiled in confusion. The reason of this which immediately follows -- for thou shalt inherit all nations -- is understood by some as a prophecy concerning the kingdom of Christ, by whom God has brought all nations in subjection to himself. But it is to be viewed in a more extensive sense, as implying that God has a rightful claim to the obedience of all nations, and that tyrants are chargeable with wickedly and unjustly wresting from him his prerogative of bearing rule, when they set at nought his authority, and confound good and evil, right and wrong. We ought therefore to beseech him to restore to order the confusions of the world, and thus to recover the rightful dominion which he has over it.
1 "The Psalmist having thus far addressed himself to the administrators of justice, as if wearied with his ineffectual remonstrance, here suddenly turns away and condemns their inattention and perverseness. The change of person is a natural indication of the earnestness of the speaker, and has a lively effect." -- Mant.
2 "All the foundations of the earth, etc. Rather, of the land; that is, truth and justice, the foundation of all good government, and the only security of a state, are now altogether violated or disregarded." -- Warner.
4 This is the reading in our English Bible, on which Archbishop Secker remarks, "It seems needless to say that these princes shall fall like one of the princes." He thinks with Bishop Hare that the true reading is not
5 This is the translation given of these lines in the French version.